Every once in awhile, this sentiment is uttered in the context of great suffering and trial. The person who speaks it witnessed or experienced unspeakable tragedy. I weep with them, and mourn. And in those cases, I understand why it is said, and I sympathize.
However, most of the time I think the sentiment arises either--
a) because the speaker has romanticized and idealized their own past, or
b) the speaker watches too much television and reads the newspaper and forms their worldview from those two sources
Often it is an admixture of the two.
If you actually think the world is as it is portrayed in the newspaper and on television, the world is pretty horrible. The concentration of sensationalized horror is pretty high. But if most of us, by comparison, read instead our lived experience, or cull other sources than the morning paper or nightly news, we would see how far off the mark this sentiment really is.
There's a verse in Ecclesiastes that addresses this situation well.
Eccl. 7:10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
If you don't trust the NRSV translation, then consider the NIV:
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
The point is clear. It is not a sign of wisdom to compare the present to the past, and come to the conclusion that the former days were better than the old days.
By implication, although Ecclesiastes is not as forthright on this point, we could as easily imagine Qoheleth (the author of Ecclesiastes), saying,
Do not say, "Why are the present days so much better than the olden days?"
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Ecclesiastes does come close, when it says,
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
My point in all of this is simple: Things aren't going to hell. Quite the opposite, if we hope and trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, then things, generally speaking as they chart their course into the future, are on their way to God. The future is coming to us, and it is life in God. And the present time, mystery of mystery, is also in God's hands.
Sometimes I think the worry that the world is falling apart arises out of an unwillingness to embrace the beauty of the new. Certain people, having tired of needing to change more than a few times as culture and history march inexorably forward, simply give up in their embrace of what is next.
However, even young people who have gone through less change are still tempted by this spiritual malaise, albeit in a slightly different variation. Sometimes they are not open to the past impinging on their glorious present, because they never have had to change, and the culture, especially our culture, tends to valorize their youth and cool factor.
Generations are judgmental in both directions on this point. Often youth can't see what the older generation valued as being valuable. The older generations, on the other hand, worry about the future (quickly becoming the present) being placed in the hands of the youth. And some people who are older are actually young. And some people who are younger are prematurely old. This is not strictly a factor of age. It is a factor of mentality. It is a measuring rod for wisdom.
My generation has been at risk often of saying, "Boomers suck." Boomers are at risk of saying, "The youth are scary." And so on. I think the sentiment on either side needs to stop, and grow up.
If there is a way forward in all of this (and I trust there is), the way forward is the same way as always. It's a two-part recipe.
1) Be radically open to the new and different that comes to you from your neighbor, especially your neighbor who is older/younger, richer/poorer, stranger/familiarer, closer/farther than you and to you.
2) Think assets. What is it that this new present brings that is gift, not threat? Map the assets and opportunities rather than detriments and dismissals.
Ask, How are the present days actually quite a bit like the olden days? That's the best question, because any good historian will tell you that every generation, in certain ways, shares the same kinds of worries, and the same kinds of questions. Everything old is new again, and everything new is old.
I might add mid-life lessons #28a and #28b: First, don't watch television, especially the news. Second, Ecclesiastes is a totally under-rated book of the bible, and is at the heart of my spirituality as a pastor and theologian.